Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The mammy wars continue

I read an article on motherhood this week which made me want to stand up, punch the air with joy and whoop very loudly.

I probably would have done all that if I had not been so utterly, utterly exhausted from the 387 nights of broken sleep I have endured since my daughter arrived on this planet.

But the article said what I have been thinking all along and that is that - for many women - that innocent looking, smiling, gummy creature who fills your heart with joy is also a tyrannical oppressor.

In fairness it is not my baby’s fault - or any babby’s fault for that matter that they are oppressive little life bombs (I steal the term life bomb from American blogger Heather ‘Dooce’ Armstrong). It is our fault - as mothers - and we need to sit ourselves down and give ourselves a very stern talking to.

Several generations ago it was a woman’s sole responsibility once she married and had children to take care of her house and her family. She gave birth with no pain relief whatsover. She breastfed. She pounded dirty nappies in soapy water before running them through a mangle. She mashed home cooked food and slaved over a hot cooker to feed her brood. She didn’t really dare dream of a life outside of the house and well, at the time, we can pretty much say there wasn’t much in the line of choices for women. We were unliberated. We were carers and mammies and wives and we were not individuals.

And then the women’s lib movement came about and with it there were some pretty spectacular changes. Washing machines were invented - proper automatic ones which did not require anyone to stand breaking their back over them. Pain relief was introduced to child birth (oh pethidine, I love you). Baby formula was also invented - allowing an alternative to breast milk and freeing new mothers up from 24 hour baby duty. The disposable nappy was a God send and I’m all for the occasional jar of baby food if not only to relieve the monotony of pureeing endless amounts of strained carrots never knowing if your baby is just going to spit it back out at you.

Women got out of the house, and got on the career ladder and all was well with the world. We were told we were equal with our male counterparts and that we could achieve whatever our hearts desired. We had been liberated! (Cue great happiness and clinking of wine glasses).

But something has changed. According to French author Elizabeth Badinter in her book Le Conflit, La Femme et La Mère (The Conflict, The Woman and The Mother), women have given up the battle for equality and returned home to place themselves at the service of their children. Which, of course, is all well and good if you want to be at the service of your children. The problem arises when we are told we should be there, and that we are selfish to have children if we have no notion of not spending 24 hours a day with them.

Being a stay at home mother is the goal of many a tired working mammy trying to do it all and bitching about it on internet forums the country over. Except that stay at home mothers are no longer allowed to be just ordinary stay at home mothers. They are expected to be breastfeeding, lentil pureeing, cloth nappy scrubbing, sling wearing, baby signing eco warriers whose sole purpose in life is to nurture their children. Any mother slaving away in her office and dreaming of a life when she gets up, plonks the kids in front of the telly and scurries back to bed for an hour before partaking in some light cleaning or lunch with friends should beware.

Instead, once the pureeing and scrubbing and breastfeeding is done, mothers should be bringing their infants to music classes, gym classes, swimming classes, baby massage classes - everything focusing entirely on the development of the baby and ignoring the fact that there is a real live human individual there with that baby.

Badinter rightly points out: “We live 80 to 85 years in our industrialised countries, and children take up 20 to 25 years of that,” she says. “Staking your whole life on 20 years is a bad bet.”

Now, I hope my children take up more of my life than 20 years. I hope I will always be a major part of their lives and they of mine but I do not wish to lose my identity entirely to be their mother.

I don’t want my peers telling me how I should parent, or if I should work. I don’t want to be judged for my parenting decisions. I don’t want to cease to exist as an individual just because I am a mother as well.

Babies, even those who do not sleep, are wonderful. I wouldn’t be without mine for all the money in the world but I’m important too. That’s something we should all remember.

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